Wilderness Underfoot: The American sycamore

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11828949208251.jpg’, ”, ‘The bark of the sycamore is unlike that of any other tree – it peels and flakes in large patches as the trunk and branches grow. Near the top of the tree, branches may be very smooth and very light in color.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118289489319081.jpg’, ”, ‘American sycamore tree – Platanus occidentalis grows across the eastern U.S., although less commonly in northernmost regions. You can identify this tree by its alternating maple-like leaves, round seeds, and distinctive bark. Interestingly, leaves in this genus of trees have been found in 115-million-year-old fossils (early Cretaceous Period)—a time when dinosaurs such as Suchomimus, Utahraptor and Giganotosaurus lived.‘);

This is one of the most magnificent trees in our region.

The American sycamore is a massive tree. Among trees native to the eastern United States, none has a larger trunk diameter, and few have larger crowns.

According to the University of Illinois Extension, the “biggest tree” (largest trunk and crown) on record in our state is a huge sycamore in Christian County with a trunk circumference of 31 feet, a crown 134 feet across, and a height of 119 feet.

The grandest sycamores are those growing in the richest soils. Sycamores thrive in moist bottomlands and in rich alluvial soils found near rivers and streams. Strangely, however, these trees are often the first to re-establish poor soils that have been disturbed or badly eroded—even if they never attain the size they might have reached in more preferable locations.

The wood of the sycamore is extremely rugged and hard to split, making it useful for tool handles and butcher blocks. Most woodworkers avoid this tough wood, although they may use its attractively grained veneer.

As an ornamental, the American sycamore is a fast-growing shade tree that can sometimes overshadow other trees, gardens and lawns that require lots of sunlight. With its huge crown, it is not a good choice near power lines. Its tough roots can crack driveways and raise sidewalks, so it should be planted where the roots have room to spread out. It is sometimes susceptible to certain fungal diseases, which, while not often fatal, can cause it to lose leaves. Fertilizing the tree with nutrient formulas that promote wood growth, as opposed to leaf growth, will improve its resistance to fungus.

from the June 27-July 4, 2007, issue

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